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Review: “Voltron Legendary Defender” is a Breakthrough Reinvention

by on June 10, 2016
 

Voltron Legendary DefenderAmid all the promotion for Voltron Legendary Defender this spring, one thing struck me more than any other: a quote officially publicized from Executive Producer Joaquim Dos Santos that declared “We didn’t make the Voltron that we saw, we made the Voltron that we remembered.” In our age of countless sequels or reboots and elevated fandom expectations, one might be forgiven for contemplating this as the word of creators too embarrassed by their source material to really stand by it, but no one need have worried. Voltron Legendary Defender is in fact the reverent reimagining of your dreams, primed to win over both new converts and devoted fans with boundless and refreshing originality. Rather than standing in the shadows of continuity or playing at the thankless task of being a modern update of the overlooked original Beast King Go-Lion, the inaugural Legendary Defender adventure “The Rise of Voltron” opts to totally rewrite the book for a generation of new fans.

In the future humanity is taking its first steps toward exploring the cosmos thanks to the Galaxy Garrison, here seemingly imagined more like a futurist equivalent to NASA and not so much a military outfit. Cadets Lance, Hunk and Pidge are individually talented but a disaster as a three-man team in training, although events compel them to be better soon enough. Pidge breaks curfew to independently monitor the frontier and soon finds himself divulging signs of alien communication and talk of a weapon called “Voltron” to his disbelieving teammates, after which a prodigal pilot comes crashing to Earth: Shiro, the only human to return from the same doomed expedition where Pidge’s brother and father were lost. Shiro’s wild claims of an alien menace out in space only earn him sedation, prompting the boys to impulsively bust him out to get at the truth. Beating them to the punch is Shiro’s friend and former cadet Keith, who turns out to have been acting on mysterious inspiration to investigate phenomena and signs suggesting Voltron is on Earth.

Voltron Legendary DefenderTogether the group comes across the mechanical Blue Lion that seems to come alive at their arrival, resulting in an unprecedented trip through space and an encounter with a hostile alien battleship. Blue Lion is drawn toward a futuristic castle on a remote planet, which turns out to be harboring another Lion and two individuals: the alien princess Allura and her aide Coran, apparently the last survivors of a once-great civilization destroyed by the conquering Galra Empire and its monarch King Zarkon. Even after their ten thousand year hibernation Zarkon is somehow still at large, and looking to capture Voltron to make his victory absolute. Only by recovering all five robot lions and forming the mechanical titan Voltron can Zarkon’s forces be resisted, and only by learning to work together and trust each other can this infant team succeed.

The fundamentals of the original Voltron were and are very simple, and surely cliche to generations that grew up on Power Rangers and anime fans that know its roots in the fad of cheesy old school Japanese robot cartoons where archetypal pilots team up to foil the evil plot of the week. But execution is everything, and Voltron Legendary Defender is what happens when the reins are turned over to masters of their craft. In this case, DreamWorks TV Animation has effectively managed a dream team reunion of talent that molded Nickelodeon hits Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra into what they were. Showrunners Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos were integral to both and also made their marks storyboarding, directing or producing myriad highlights of modern DC Comics animation, while the writing trio of Tim Hedrick, Joshua Hamilton and May Chan were all Avatar: The Last Airbender scriptwriters. The Korean Studio Mir brings the vibrant and colorful 2D animation to an expressive and cartoony life just as it did for Korra, enabling both visual language and humor that say as much as the spoken word and gives the heroes so much of their charm.

Voltron Legendary DefenderFollowing the example of the original’s first episodes, “The Rise of Voltron” spends much of its time introducing the characters through a fetch quest for the robot lions to set up the rest of Netflix’s first season. Action fans are unlikely to mind, though. With super robots, less is traditionally more, with titular mecha representing a thrilling finish and a final solution to the problems at hand. Voltron Legendary Defender makes the smart move of giving each pilot unique weapons and making the robot lions different sizes with different attributes, such as Hunk’s yellow lion being large and the best at defense. This creates opportunities for teamwork and varied action whether the pilots are on foot or in robot lions, and the show doesn’t settle for them plowing through hapless minions. This is a small team taking on a much greater foe, and Voltron Legendary Defender genuinely recognizes this by having the team rely on careful planning and cunning more than brute force or blind luck. Every victory feels earned and satisfying, not mundane.

Voltron Legendary Defender also successfully reinvents its key characters, making them all substantially more than their original counterparts. The most welcome change comes with Princess Allura, and let’s be honest here Voltron fans: in the original, she was the token female pilot and moreover brought in out of necessity to replace a man, and also featured most prominently when being pursued by the evil prince of her mortal enemy. These days we rightly expect something more, and we get it in Voltron Legendary Defender, as the show sets Allura up as the pilots’ guide and apparently the last steward of her culture. Rather than an angsting and delicate flower, Allura more closely resembles a sage mentor like Zordon in Power Rangers or, if you like, Dr. Yumi in Mazinger Z. The twist is that she’s not a sage but a youthful woman that’s inherited overwhelming responsibility, and the challenge faced by her and the pilots in the premiere is to hear the calling of her heart to stand and fight rather than prudently and meekly run just to survive in the face of relentless evil. A word of admiration is also deserved for Allura being redesigned as a dark-skinned, white-haired humanoid woman, thereby achieving a savvy creative bank shot that adds diversity to the show’s cast while credibly establishing her as the exotic and beautiful alien her blond-haired, blue-eyed, Japanese-created counterpart never could be to Western eyes. Rarely is a change so radical and simultaneously so perfect. The only possible strike against this reinvention is her exclusion from the Voltron team, yet she too dons a uniform like the boys and her castle is also a spaceship at her disposal. This fan cannot help but approve.

Voltron Legendary DefenderFor their part, the boys are all likable or at least interesting in their own ways. Rather than being simply the childlike and smart one, Pidge is shown here to be an earnest and potentially volatile young man still finding his confidence, hopeful to one day find his family alive. Lance is both an incorrigible hotshot and spirited goofball, resembling Avatar‘s Sokka if he were also a wannabe Captain Kirk. But underneath the bravado are subtle signs of someone looking to prove himself to others, including himself. That may be tough for him given his one-sided rivalry with serious-minded Keith, here portrayed as a prodigy but also a lone wolf drummed out of Galaxy Garrison for discipline trouble. Binding the entire group together is Shiro, a confident leader able to calmly but firmly direct everyone’s focus to what matters. Keith knows him, Lance idolizes him, Pidge genuinely bonds with him during the expedition. He’s also sure to be at the epicenter of the season’s mysteries, as “The Rise of Voltron” makes much of the fact that he can’t account for most the time he was imprisoned by the Galrak. The one weak link in the premiere is the chubby Hunk, who is too often on the wrong end of jokes and a running gag about the fact he’s an aspiring pilot with chronic motion sickness that somehow only kicks in when this wouldn’t get someone killed. Mercifully he’s also shown to be intelligent and competent in his own right, to the point there’s reason to hope he’ll get to be more than an echo of Bolin from The Legend of Korra. The job of designated comic relief is best left to Coran, a scatterbrained goofball I might spurn if it weren’t for the priceless reactions he provokes from everyone else.

Between the binge-ready format of Voltron Legendary Defender and the ambitions of its staff, a “highly serialized vibe” has been promised compared to the original, which is exciting news for fans who remember what this crew achieved on Avatar: the Last Airbender. Voltron fans should be more than satisfied by new and non-gimmicky storytelling they can take seriously even as the tale is having fun with itself. Often much is made of works being ostensibly made by and for fans, but Legendary Defender is what happens when great talent gets to work on material it understands, while understanding that paying tribute to past works is more about recapturing fundamental virtues and less about ensuring maximum coverage of a checklist of details. Most of all, it’s just flat out great fun for everyone. Form up and enjoy this ride while it lasts.

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